Healthy Friendships

There is a lot of tail wagging, belly rubbing and slobbery kissing going on in at least half of America’s families. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 46 percent of U.S. households have at least one dog and 39 percent of households have at least one cat. Clearly, Americans love pets and that’s a good thing, because amid all the puppy love and kitty comforts, there are some human health benefits to pet ownership.

According to psychologist Ruthie Moccia of Human Dynamics, a therapy service in Columbia, people who own pets are healthier than those who don’t. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists such tangible improvements as decreased blood pressure, lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, and diminished feelings of loneliness for pet owners. Moccia, who has worked in psychology for 25 years, sometimes brings her pet therapy dog, Alex, to the office to work with children.

Moccia’s pet therapy sessions began when a friend’s grandmother was placed in a nursing home. She brought Alex and his littermate Sadie to visit, and noticed how the dogs brought joy to the nursing home residents through the simple act of petting them.

She has seen the dogs’ effect on children, especially those between the ages of 5 and 11, and adds it is more pronounced than their effect on adults. Moccia and a child may take a dog for a walk or teach it a new trick, an activity that gives the child a sense of pride in the accomplishment. When a child working with Moccia completes a goal after a few sessions, the reward is a visit from Alex. This system teaches children compensation for their hard work, Moccia says. The prospect of a visit from the dog is very motivating.

Moccia has worked with therapy dogs for 14 years. She says her dogs are trained to stay calm and not jump. Their calm demeanor is therapeutic for patients because “connection with another calm thing tends to make a person calm,” she explains. “There is an exchange of energy that takes place.”

Alex and Sadie were most beneficial to a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome who was bullied at school, Moccia says. “He really loved the dogs. He would surrender to their affection,” she says. “He looked like he was in paradise.” A bedwetting problem was resolved with visits from Alex and Sadie offered as a reward for a dry bed over several days’ time.

Moccia believes dogs have a special ability to give unconditionally. Typically, people are under more stress than pets, so people are less consistent in their moods and are not always able to give their full attention to their companions. Dogs are great companions, Moccia says, because they can’t argue.

The benefits of pets do not stop outside the therapist’s office. According to a study conducted by the University of Liverpool, walking a dog keeps pet owners more physically active. And, adds psychologist Alan Entin, getting outside and meeting other dog owners is a social activity, which keeps people connected with the community. Entin, past president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Family Psychology, points out that dogs need to be walked every day, so having one almost forces the owner to get outside and walk or run, thus leading to a healthier lifestyle. A 2002 study conducted by the State University of New York at Buffalo found that spending time with pets can reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure.

Pets are fun to play with but they also provide a sense of companionship different than that of a human. Their unconditional love, open spirits, and incredible ability to listen without judgment make furry friends some of the best friends to have around.


Where To Adopt Pets In Mid-Missouri

Central Missouri Humane Society

Columbia Second Chance

Boone County Animal Care
Horses are also therapy pets. Find out more at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center,